The first high-definition movies on Blu-ray Disc launch Tuesday from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment (SPHE). Blu-ray is locked in a format battle with HD-DVD for dominance as the primary means of delivering packaged, high-def entertainment.
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Sony, SPHE’s parent company, of course resolutely supports Blu-ray Disc (http://www.blu-raydisc.com/), backing the format in its consumer electronics, gaming (PlayStation 3), and storage divisions. SPHE carries its own cachet: The company has one of the largest and most enviable film libraries in existence — particularly if you also count MGM Studios, in which Sony has a stake, among its ranks.
The titles launching Tuesday (http://www.sonypictures.com/homevideo/bluray/) are: 50 First Dates, The Fifth Element, Hitch, House of Flying Daggers, The Terminator, Underworld Evolution, and XXX. Next week, Ultraviolet will be the studio’s first Blu-ray title released at the same time as the DVD-only version. SPHE plans to release four catalog titles each month (by the fourth quarter of 2006, the company expects to be releasing up to ten titles per month); in addition, it plans to release new titles simultaneously with their DVD counterparts.
Samsung officially launches its BD-P1000 Blu-ray Disc player on June 25. Sony’s Blu-ray player, the BDP-S1, is due out in August. Both are expected to cost $1000.
Ramping up to Blu-ray
The lead-up to the Blu-ray launch presented some challenges, but nothing that was insurmountable, says Don Eklund, executive vice president of advanced technologies at SPHE. "Our studio has been mastering to high-definition for our feature films for over ten years. So we have a library of over 3,000 movies that are already ready for high-definition."
Sony’s first discs will be encoded in MPEG-2 (http://www.siggraph.org/education/materials/HyperGraph/video/codecs/MPEG2.html), the same video codec used by today’s standard-definition DVDs. The initial reason for doing so was simple: Sony already had encoding tools in place that could easily be adapted to Blu-ray Disc. "We started working with Sony Japan a couple of years ago developing an MPEG-2 encoder specifically for this format," says Eklund.
However, Eklund says the company has discovered other advantages to using MPEG-2. "Since then, we’ve also done some testing with VC-1 and MPEG-4 AVC. We’re finding they have some advantages when encoding at very low bit rates, but those low bit rates, as compared with MPEG-2, do not yield transparent picture quality to the original master. When you’re encoding, you need to encode the noise that is part of the film grain of that master as well."
"What makes the films most difficult to encode, actually, is noise. And to make the best approximation of it, you need to use the highest available bit rate," Eklund says. "The bit rate we use for our typical releases is 18Mbps [megabits per second] average, with a 30Mbps maximum. And that is one of the key differences for HD DVD and Blu-ray: We have a higher bandwidth available for encoding than HD DVD has. It gives us a lot of flexibility even when we’re working with the most difficult video masters."
As with DVDs today, and as other studios are doing with HD DVD releases, Sony will be using variable-bit-rate encoding on its discs, to optimize image quality. "The encoder can increase the bit rate selectively for difficult scenes," explains Eklund.
"Our goal from the outset is that we wanted the viewer to look at the video master on one side and the Blu-ray Disc on the other — and not be able to tell the difference."
Java: brave new disc-authoring world
Blu-ray Disc relies on BD-Java (BD-J) for its disc-authoring environment; HD DVD uses Microsoft’s XML-based iHD, or Internet High Definition. "I think BD-J is better future-proofed," says Eklund. "But it is complex," and implementing it properly will take more time, he says.
The switch to BD-J required adding programmers and engineers to the disc-production mix. "We have some engineers who are using BD-J, using typical program environment tools," notes Eklund. "The authoring tool we have can accept BD-J files, but it doesn’t automate BD-J navigation, for example. We are going to be integrating that into our authoring tools, though." Some of the engineers working on SPHE’s Blu-ray content also worked on the company’s standard-definition DVD and Universal Media Disc authoring.
BD-J has two different profiles. Sony’s first content will be in what Eklund refers to as BD-MV, or "movie mode." "The menus will still be quite different than what you’re accustomed to with DVD," he promises. "BD-MV is a powerful format for creating interactive menus, and it will give a better, more seamless experience than what users are getting from DVD. You don’t have to jump around between menu pages as you do with DVD. We use a graphics layer to present all of the text information, so you don’t have to go back and access the disc in order to access the menus. We also have a tool called a pop-up menu that the user can use to access disc features during the movie’s playback, so, for example, you can get to a commentary track."
As powerful as BD-MV is, it has its limitations. "We are currently still investigating how we’re going to author picture-in-picture content," says Eklund. "But I’m sure we will be exploring that later on in the year."
High-Def all the way?
Tech-savvy filmmakers are starting to get excited by what the next-generation formats can offer, but Eklund says their focus is primarily on one thing. "What I’ve discussed mostly with the few filmmakers I’ve talked with is picture quality. For filmmakers, it’s all about the film, and less about the added value," says Eklund. "There are a few filmmakers that engage us with added value."
At the outset, Eklund says consumers can expect that the bonus content will feature a mix of both high-definition and standard-definition content. "We have some titles that we’re providing standard-definition content. And we have newer titles where the added value — things like interviews, documentaries, featurettes — is being shot in high-definition."
The potential interactivity of Blu-ray Disc will remain a promise for now; these early discs won’t be the ones raising the bar to new heights. But Eklund promises Sony is looking at a number of options. "One of them is the ability to create interactive games on a Blu-ray Disc. It certainly won’t be at the level of a gaming console, but it certainly would be interesting — and vastly better than what we can do with DVD. Those games will not be included in our first releases, just because we haven’t had enough time to do testing with enough players to make sure there are no compatibility issues.
"The thing to keep in mind," he continues, "is that the people who are most anxious to get their hands on these formats are the people who are avid videophiles. We need to fulfill the promise in picture quality and sound quality. With BD-J, we’re going to improve the interactivity of the disc for years to come. It’s a programming language."